Russell Goings

 
 

Thoughts About a Level Playing Field 
 

The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that goals and objectives offered by Blacks of talent have been unsuccessful in making right the unleveled playing field.

We begin with Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave of immense talent, who became an adviser to Abraham Lincoln and the consul general to Haiti.

On April 14, 1876, at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument, in memory of his friend and benefactor, President Lincoln, with salty tears striping his face, he said in a voice full of pathos that addressed what had been going on, “We stand today at the National Center to perform a national act – an act which is to go into history, and we are here where every pulsation of the national heart can be heard, felt and reciprocated.

“A thousand wires, fed with thought and winged with lightning, put us in instantaneous communication with loyal and true men all over this country."

This man of vision and builder placed his shovel deep into the soil of the playing field and pushed to right its tilt… In his autobiography, this former slave, who became the leader of Blacks said,  “that we are here in peace today is a compliment and credit to American civilization and a prophecy of still greater enlightenment and progress in the future.” [1]

In 1988, it is painful to review his quest; housing, jobs, education, liberty, freedom, equality and justice are still central to his work.  We call it unfinished business. His dogma is still as valid as when first spoken; he died leaving the playing field uneven.

Booker T. Washington placed his intelligence and intellect and his determination in play. He became, by dint of his personality, heir to the unfinished work of Frederick Douglass. Booker T. Washington created schools, training centers, and other work laboratories. He lectured and wrote. He, too, became a presidential favorite…and was embraced. His philosophy of moderation caught the attention of industrialists, who provided financial support to his creations. He, too, was a dreamer, who had the ability to make dreams come alive.

A highlight in his career was his speech at the Atlanta Convention, a showcase for domesticated colored people.

Booker T. Washington spoke to the president, as well as officials representing city, state and nation. He gave his famous “Ploughshares"  speech. In his address about making the playing field level, he said, “I remember that uppermost in my mind was the desire to say something that would cement the friendship of the races and bring about hardy cooperation between them. [2]

Speaking to the President and his board of directors, he said, “There is no escape through law of man or God from the inevitable:

The law of changeless justice bind

oppressor with the oppressed

and close as sin and suffering joined

we march to fate abreast…” [3]

In his attempt to persuade, Mr. Washington worked to level the playing field when he said, “The wisest among my race understand that agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist’s folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the market of the world in any degree ostracized. It is important and right all privileges of the law be ours…” [4]

It should be noted that Mr. Washington speaks of the laws of God – natural laws and man-made laws; God-laws are never artificial and are never superceded by man-made laws. We know this and yet man-made laws and strictures prevail to hinder Blacks.

Here again are methods to keep the playing field unleveled.

During this period we meet the new player, W.E.B. DuBois, who writes in The Souls of Black Folk, “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line…” [5]

Although brilliant in many respects, Mr. DuBois could not right the playing field. He tells us, “Years have passed away – 10, 20, 40 years of national life, 40 years of renewal and development, and yet the swarthy specter sets in its accustomed seat at the national feast…in vain do we cry to this vastest social problem…

“The nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found freedom in the Promised Land. Whatever good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people.” [6]

On our uneven playing field, we face a mad, headless host, the holocaust of a war started before 1860, which still continues, the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, the growth of white protective associations, the lies of carpetbaggers, the organization of industry and the contradictory advice of so-called friends and dogged foes…Racism is still alive and the playing field still uneven.

We, the beneficiaries, were left on the field bewildered and with no watchword beyond freedom. Beyond the hope that comes after Sunday’s church service, we hear the echo of a broken promise – an unpaid promissory note, entitling us to “40 acres and a mule.” We also hear another warrior, W.E.B. DuBois, whose shovel is still partially loaded. He is joined by Marcus Garvey, a mover who begins to successfully tilt the playing field.

Along the way he is joined by: Father Divine, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Reverend Richard Allen, Ida B. Wells and Mary Bethune…

Marcus Garvey represents a school of thought different from that of Washington and DuBois, regarding education and philosophy, typified by Booker T. Washington’s programs of industrial education and self-improvement.

DuBois’ advocacy of liberal education for the “Talented Tenth” was a far cry from Garvey who established educational and industrial schools to reclaim the fallen and discarded criminal class and average citizens.

His goals were: to promote universal confraternity, to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood and to unify the races.

Garvey’s successful approach in bringing these elements into play brought the wrath of Washington, DuBois and others against him. Envy played a part in the dissonant song they sang.

Garvey demonstrated brilliance in organizing, in leading, and in creating belief where there was none.

He said to DuBois, “You may be informed that the object of the Negro Improvement Association is to work for educational, industrial, social and political development of the races, thereby proving to the world our fitness as a people to live among the other progressive races of the world.”

These, then, are the steps that cause Washington and DuBois to take notice. Not only was Garvey training and educating, he was gathering and developing political power and he knew how to use it.

The notion of political power and its effective use disturbed Washington’s financial supporters and caused DuBois to rethink his agenda…The “Talented Tenth” had to gain a broader base in order to become a national force or the concept would lose its appeal.

Garvey, in his wisdom, had changed the character and dimensions of the playing field. Here begins a new ballgame, directed by a Black man, which is in play today.

I have read Washington’s Up From Slavery and noted the controversy between Washington and DuBois pertaining to race, class and identity. Blacks passing for white are featured characters in Cane, There is Confusion, and Home to Harlem…All the characters vie for identity on the uneven playing field, which now includes new players: Malcolm X, King, Adam Clayton Powell III, writers and others.

Still, when all is said and done, it is the hope that Sunday brings, which is found in the song of my people.

Here again I sing: “Come Sunday, I know Monday will come, I’ll get a job, father a child; I’ll sharpen what’s mine and I’ll know “Cane would have been  for Toomer, the end of his presentation, instead of the beginning.

Come Sunday, I know that the country has not changed, that the struggle of Jake and Ray joined with Olga and Kubis, with Joanna Marshall and Peter Bye, that the struggle, as with all the characters in the books read in class, seek a level playing field. They all keep shoveling; they all keep struggling for identity, for peace, for freedom and equality and for acceptance.

They, for the most part, are proud and intelligent people, working to implement what was fashioned by: Douglass, Garvey, Washington, DuBois and Sojourner Truth. It was Claude McKay who said in Home to Harlem, “Colored people all over the world the most exploitable material, and colored Harlem is no exception, the population is gullible to an extreme.

“When and wherever an ethnologically group of people is exploited by others, the exploiters often operate on the principle of granting certain concessions as sop. [7]

“In Harlem, as in most places of color, the exploiters are, as a group, overwhelmingly white.”

The struggle to level the playing field was attacked and is continuing to be attacked by Black writers. In the past they sought, and today they seek, to express ways to tell what Black Americans face in their daily experience.

James Weldon Johnson states, after having read The Souls of Black Folk, “That it had a greater effect upon and within the Negro race in America than any other single book, published in this country since Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The Souls of Black Folk may be seen as fixing a period in history when Blacks began to reject the idea of the world belonging to white people and thinking as a force to level the field and own a part of the world.

The two classics, Up from Slavery and The Souls of Black Folk, although unlike, address the common problems: discrimination, education, training and development. Both minister to universal and emotional needs during a time of great stress.

The work of writers, thinkers, and statesmen – notably the first Black leaders – began to level the playing field. They instituted laws, which immediately began to be negated through constant attack, reversals and neglect by the enactment of States Rights and betrayal by the Federal Government.

During Reconstruction there was a promise that the playing field would be leveled. There was radical participation in the political process by my people. Throughout the South, Black people were elected to state legislature, to Congress and to the Senate.

These new full citizens helped to frame laws under the notion that Blacks are part and parcel of America and we are here to stay. This was the first time the new Negro had real power.

Within a short period of time, influential white men of the South, along with some help from unhappy Northern sympathizers, crippled and curtailed our first full act of suffrage and budding power.

They burned businesses, homes, churches; they intimidated, they maimed, they hanged leaders, and they chased organizers out of town, tarring and feathering those they caught – killing became common and the playing field was tilted once again.

To help to level the playing field are instruments of law: “Brown vs. Board of Education,” the passage of various state and federal amendments, Supreme Court rulings and closer implementation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, equal opportunity in housing, lending, education, affirmative action and boycotting.

And yet, after all that has been said and done, the notion of a level playing field is still a continuing dream for Blacks. We have studied the lives of fictional and real people, who live and died, unfulfilled, hoping that Sunday will bring the promise of Monday and the field will be made level.


 

[1] Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, (Collier Books, London, 1892), p. 481, 482

[2] The Norton Anthology, African-American Literature, (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, London, 1997), p. 513

[3] The Norton Anthology, African-American Literature, (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, London, 1997), p.515 – “The Song of the Negro Boatman” in At Port Royal, John Greenleaf Whittier, 1862

[4] The Norton Anthology, African-American Literature, (W.W. Norton & Co., New York., London, 1997), p. 515, 516

[5] Robert A. Hall, The Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Volume 1, p. 57, 63, 187, 190, 332, 334

[6] W.E.B. DuBois, Black Titan, anthology, (Beacon Press, Boston, 1970) p. 49

7 Claude McKay, Home to Harlem, (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1928)

 

Bibliography

Jean Toomer, Cane, (Liveright, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1923)

W.E.B. DuBois, The Gift of Black Folk, (Washington Square Press, 1970)

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, (Vintage Books, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. & Random House,
          Inc., 1963)

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Bantam Books – published By arrangement with
          Beacon Press, 1985)

Jesse Redmon Fauset, There is Confusion, (Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1924)

Claude McKay, Home to Harlem, (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1928)

 

 Copyright © Russell Goings 2012

 
  Russell Goings studied writing at Fairfield University and the 92nd Street Y. He has been writing poetry for sixteen years. He was a pro football player, the first African American brokerage manager for a New York Stock Exchange Member firm; the first owner of an African American firm to manage assets for Fortune 500 companies; the first African American Chairman of the Studio Museum in Harlem; and founder and Chairman for Essence magazine. An inductee into the Wall Street Hall of Fame, Goings has also been featured in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Black Enterprise magazine. His book, The Children of Children Keep Coming, was published by Simon and Schuster.